Why Are Parallel Fifths Bad Voice Leading?

I recently posted a music theory puzzle of a Bach chorale excerpt which contains parallel fifths. I was reminded that some music students may not understand why parallel fifths are considered “bad.” In fact, a great deal of contemporary music uses parallel fifths and to our modern ears they don’t usually sound wrong.

The usual answer is that it “destroys the independence” of each voice, which is true. However, there are also some practical reasons for avoiding parallel fifths in compositions for a cappella voices – it’s hard to sing. ComposerOnline put together an nice video presentation that demonstrates this.

There are also some historical reasons why Baroque Era composers began consciously avoiding parallel fifths. Beginning around the 8th or 9th century polyphony (the idea of using multiple melodic lines together, rather than just unison voices or voices with drones) developed. The religious chants were sung in monasteries by both men and boys in octaves already, so it seems obvious in retrospect that they might also sing them in parallel fifths. This is known as “parallel organum.” David W. Barber describes organum in his book, “Bach, Beethoven, and the Boys: Music History As It Ought To Be Taught.”

Gregorian chants developed into something called organum, which was all the rage of the ninth to 12th centuries. In its simples form, this consisted of singing the same Gregorian tune as the monk beside you at the interval of a perfect fourth or fifth.* This is harder to do than it sounds, and requires the kind of concentration that monks are especially good at.

* Barber’s footnote reads, “It’s not worth explaining why fourths and fifths are called perfect. Just take my word for it.”

Parallel organum later evolved into “free organum,” although it still frequently used parallel fourths or fifths between the two voices. It’s quite a distinctive sound. Here’s an example.

By 1600 ( early Baroque Era) the sound of parallel motion had started to sound old fashioned. Even in instrumental music, which doesn’t have the technical difficulties writing for voices have with parallel motion, composers avoided the use of parallel fifths and octaves. When they were used, they were sometimes used to symbolize something rustic or old fashioned, such as in Beethoven’s 6th (“Pastoral Symphony”).

It’s not until the 20th century when composers began to start using parallel motion with more frequency. It’s now a sound that is ubiquitous in many styles of music. I find it interesting that a musical sound can go from 5 centuries of extensive use to 3 centuries of avoidance, to being used frequently again. Not to mention musical styles other than “western European art music” that use parallel motion all the time. Regardless of your stylistic interests, both the use and avoidance of parallel fifths is something that is worth learning about. The distinctive sound of parallel fifths still has an ability to elicit a powerful reaction on us.

Embouchure Motion Pedagogy – Part 2, Common Issues and Corrections

In part 1 last week I discussed a basic procedure for working out how a give student’s embouchure motion functions best. If you haven’t read it yet, I encourage you to at least skim through that before reading this one. In this article I’m going to cover some of my thoughts on what to do with this information and why it’s important.

But before I do just my quick standard disclaimer. Please don’t assume that everything I present here is 100% correct. I try to be clear when I’m confident about a piece of information and when I’m speculating and some of what I’ve come to rely on may be outdated or just plain wrong. This is also a pretty complex topic and it’s a fine line to dance between brevity and clarity on one side with completeness and attention to details on the other.

As I mentioned in part 1, most players seem to be completely unaware of their embouchure motion. They unconsciously make it work and many brass musicians play great without ever needing to consider it (click here to see one example I recorded on video). However, many players can develop a reversal in their embouchure motion form and function that hinders their playing. Sometimes this issue isn’t apparent for a long time afterwards and by the point where it begins causing trouble, the issue is harder to correct. Even for players who are doing things pretty correctly in an unconscious way might find minor tweaks to offer good long term results.

There are many out there who are no doubt already thinking that all this will lead to “paralysis by analysis.” Before I go any further I think I should address some valid concerns some people bring up. I would agree with some that it’s much easier (and faster, at least in the short term) to teach brass students by teaching good breathing and to play by sound, not by analyzing their embouchure. I’m not suggesting that we forget this approach, just take advantage of information that helps put everything into the situational context. Also, you don’t need to explain every minute detail to your student unless you find the student is interested or might be able to benefit from understanding. Knowledge is not a bad thing, but if you’re worried about the student thinking about the wrong thing while playing then the issue is one of focus, not the fault of the information or evidence that it’s wrong. The time and place to analyze the embouchure and work on corrections is in the teaching studio and practice room. There’s also other things that need to be taught and practiced too, so just spend whatever amount of time you find is helpful, explain in as much detail as you feel is best, and move on to other materials when it’s time.

Developing a practice routine to work on a student’s embouchure motion is, like the student’s embouchure motion itself, going to be unique to the student. There’s a balance I try to strike between giving someone specific enough instructions to fully understand how to practice this and being vague enough to allow them to find what works for them. I generally try to give them instructions that they should “ascend by pulling down and slightly to the left/descend by pushing up and slightly to the right” or some similar sounding language specific to how I think their embouchure motion should function.

Two general types of exercises that most brass players are familiar with are good for practicing the embouchure motion – slip slurs and lip flexibility exercises based on the overtone series. Donald Reinhardt had a specific set he called the “Pivot Stabilizer” and “Track Routine” that are good starting points to describe the basic idea.

Again, Reinhardt used the term “pivot” to refer to this phenomenon of brass players pushing their mouthpiece and lips together along the teeth to change registers, not to refer to tilting the horn around. Most brass players use the term “pivot” differently, so I prefer to use Doug Elliott’s term, “embouchure motion,” instead. Reinhardt’s “[Embouchure Motion] Stabilizer” exercise was essentially a series of lip slurs where the player would start on a middle register note, slur down to a low register note, and then slur up to increasingly higher notes. I prefer to use octave slurs instead for a number of reasons. I first learned about this approach when interviewing Doug for my dissertation. He said:

What specific exercises do you suggest for various embouchure types to speed along corrections?

I suggest octave slurs, because it’s enough distance that you can see and feel the motion, if you watch in a mirror.  It’s also a reference point, every octave should be the same amount of motion regardless of what octave it is.  For example, almost all trombone players move way too far between middle B flat and low B flat.  If you try playing middle B flat to low B flat and look in the mirror you see this huge motion.  And every other octave in the horn you don’t move that far.   Well, it will all work a lot better if you made it the same distance.   Close that up and open it up somewhere else.

So it’s not an incremental thing where the higher you ascend the amount of the motion gets smaller?

I would say that’s the way most people actually play but I don’t think that’s desirable.  I think it needs to be the same amount of motion for each octave.  Or close to it.

The other exercise Reinhardt commonly used was his “Track Routine.” Brass players are already familiar with the lip flexibility exercises that move along different partials with the same fingering or slide position and the basic notes of the “Track Routine” are similar. What was different was how he wanted students to practice them. First, he advised his students to tongue them first and then on the same breath slur them on the repeat. He felt that this would make for an inherently more stable embouchure formation from the get go, since slurring them first would allow students to have their embouchure a little too flabby. He also wanted his students to play these exercises while paying close attention to the line their embouchure motion takes while keeping any changes in horn angle to an extreme minimum. Much like with the octave slurs, by carefully watching yourself play these in a mirror (and also by concentrating on the playing sensation) you can use this exercise to make the most embouchure motion consistent and unconscious.

There are some common issues students run into with their embouchure motion form. The one Doug mentioned in the quote above, using too much motion at a particular point in your range, is one I am quite familiar with.  I spent years working on correcting this and still have a tendency to resort to it from time to time. Here’s some video footage from several years ago where the problem is quite noticeable.

In my particular case, I carefully worked octave slurs ascending from middle Bb to high Bb and watched myself in a mirror to see how much motion I was making and how the track of the ascending slur was off to one side. Then I practiced descending from middle Bb to low Bb and tried to make it work the same, just in the opposite direction. It was hard to do this without resorting to dropping my jaw too much, but over time I’ve developed more consistency down there overall. I’m also pleased that I was able to make corrections to this before it could cause problems down the road. It’s not good to allow such reversals to become too ingrained, the problems they can cause sometimes happens in other registers where the shift isn’t happening.

Here’s an example of a trumpet player I worked with who was having difficulties with his upper register. While testing his embouchure motion I noticed that at a particular spot in his upper range he unconsciously reversed the direction of his embouchure motion, instead of continuing to push up to ascend he began to pull down there. After a bit of experimenting both in that range and finding out what works everywhere else in his range I had enough information to suggest he try continuing to push up to ascend at that point and fight the urge to pull down.

That particular case ended up being a fairly easy one for me to spot and help. Quite often I work with students who it’s much more difficult to tell how their embouchure motion should be working. Their embouchure motion may bob around on their face and be so inconsistent that it’s hard to tell what they should be doing. In these cases I think it’s fine to say, “I don’t know yet, but let’s work on these other issues first and see what happens.” It’s better to stabilize their embouchure first and see what happens. Here’s an example of one of these situations where I wasn’t too sure by the end of the session. With this particular example I’m not willing to fully commit to which direction his embouchure motion should move, but you can see and hear my thought process at the time. I’ve lost touch with this player, so I’m not sure what happened or if he is even still playing. With similar players I’ve worked the student’s best embouchure motion usually becomes more apparent over time if there are other issues that should be corrected first (i.e, this player needed more overall embouchure firmness first, then perhaps his embouchure motion would become clearer).

Another issue you’ll come across when checking out student’s embouchure motions is that sometimes they will continue moving in the same general direction, but hook off at a slightly different angle at a particular point in their register. Unfortunately I didn’t catch this happening at the time from the front view on video, but here is one example of this and the results he got from making his embouchure motion move in a straight line.

Obviously this is just scratching the surface of a complex topic, yet it’s one that gets very little attention in most methods and texts. In my opinion, gaining a better understanding of how it works is not just helpful for teachers, but also players as well. Placed in context of the big picture an instructor sees it serves as a useful tool for helping a student realize his or her musical goals.

Before concluding this series, I do want to pose some questions. What exactly is it that the embouchure motion is doing to help a brass musician play in a particular register? “Very high placement” type players and “low placement” type players might be considered upside down versions of each other, so from a mechanical standpoint, might they be essentially doing the same thing, just in the opposite direction/lip/etc.? The “medium high placement” type player is downstream, like the “very high placement” player, yet uses the same embouchure motion as the “low placement” upstream player. Why? What is it about this particular embouchure type would make it function in this way?

Post your musings in the comments.

Embouchure Motion Pedagogy – Part 1, Finding a Student’s Embouchure Motion

Many players, maybe most, are completely unaware of their embouchure motion, in spite of it being a very important part of embouchure form. Of course there are some players who do what works for their anatomy without ever needing to worry about it, but other players can unconsciously develop a way of playing that is contrary to their embouchure motion in the rest of their range. Some players may have an embouchure motion that jumps all over the place and it’s not obvious where it should be from watching them play. Some players have an embouchure motion that is very small and hard to observe. Since everyone is different, this topic quickly becomes so complex many teachers feel it’s best to ignore this and let the body figure itself out. This two part series will discuss my current thoughts on this topic, starting with talking about some strategies teachers can use to find a student’s correct embouchure motion. On Monday I’ll go over some common issues that students have with their embouchure motion and some ideas on how to approach practicing and teaching an efficient embouchure motion.

Before I go any further let me offer a “caviet emptor.” This is a difficult concept to discuss and it’s easy to be misinterpreted. Going into the level of detail I feel that does this topic justice and is complete enough to avoid misunderstandings assumes that the reader is patient enough to read the whole article and focused enough to not skim important points. Not to mention that in the process of writing sometimes things get mixed up or maybe I’m just plain wrong about something. As always, I encourage you to be skeptical of this information until you’ve confirmed it for yourself.

If you want a more detailed refresher about what I mean by “embouchure motion” follow that link, but the quick refresher is that I’m referring mainly to the way that brass players will slide the mouthpiece and lips together so that they are pushed up towards the nose and pulled down towards their chin along the teeth and gums. This aids the player in increasing or decreasing the lip vibrations. Some players push up to ascend while others pull down. In conjunction with this, there are also subtle changes in jaw position and horn angle that will go on as well. While everyone has differences in how this will work best, this is an important part of a brass player’s embouchure form.

Because all players will have a different embouchure motion determining a student’s embouchure motion can be tricky. I personally prefer to approach it in two stages where in addition to experimenting with what seems to be working, I also eliminate other possibilities to see what doesn’t work. “Trial and error” is one way to describe this, but I prefer to think of it as the scientific method – you don’t prove something by looking for evidence that supports your thought, you test what you believe by trying to prove it wrong.

The first stage I go through is trying to work out the player’s general embouchure motion direction (pushing up to the nose or pulling down towards the chin to ascend). Donald Reinhardt wrote about one method of determining the direction of a player’s embouchure motion. I’ll quote him here, but keep in mind that the definition of how he uses the word “pivot” is exactly the same thing as I’m using “embouchure motion” for. Do not confuse Reinhardt’s use of “pivot” for tilting the horn, that is not what he meant by it.

A fairly reliable, although not completely infallible, PIVOT TEST or method of selecting the correct PIVOT for a particular physical type is as follows:

1. Play a sustained half note, moderately loud, on the trumpet. . . middle C . . . and slur up to the G or to the high C. . . Practice this ascending slur at least six times and push up. . . Strive to locate the core or center of each sound with the PIVOT mentioned and be concerned by the amount of effort utilized and the particular type of tonal timbre.

2. Repeat the entire procedure in an identical manner but this time pull down while ascending (not referring to the instrument angular motion). . . Again strive to produce the centers of all pitches involved and pay particular attention to the effort and sound factors.

Generally speaking, one of the two PIVOT CLASSIFICATIONS (interjecting here, Reinhardt is talking about the embouchure motion, not tilting the horn) will offer much greater freedom of embouchure response than the other; this is the correct ascending PIVOT to select.

Donald S. Reinhardt, Encyclopedia of the Pivot System, pp. 200-201

I’ve cut out some info from the above quote for the sake of describing the method first, but I do want to mention the recommended pitches to start on with the other brass instruments. Reinhardt recommended trumpets on middle C (written C5), trombones/baritones/euphoniums on middle Bb (Bb3), horns on C below the treble clef staff (written C4), and BBb tuba low Bb (3rd ledger below bass cleff staff, Bb1).

As Reinhardt mentioned, this method isn’t always perfect. Sometimes players will change the direction of their embouchure motion at a particular point in their range. I will usually also do the same test, but have players slur from their starting pitch down large intervals. What I think should work to slur up an octave from their starting pitch should work exactly in the opposite direction to slur down. The incorrect embouchure motion direction should also similarly show you what doesn’t work.

embouchure_motionOnce I have worked out the general direction of a student’s embouchure motion I try to then work out how this particular student’s individual differences are going to change the details of how their embouchure motion will work best. Not everyone has an embouchure motion “track” that is straight up and down. Many players have a “track” that is angled to one side. Notice in my hypothetical example here that even though the imaginary track that the embouchure motion is going is generally up and down, it’s slightly angled so that the ascending motion is up and to the right of the diagram, and descending is down and to the left. The key point is that it’s functioning in a straight line, just angled to the side.

So at this stage I repeat Reinhardt’s “embouchure motion test” while asking the student to try angling their ascending embouchure motion to various degrees and on both sides. Listening for timbre and intonation I want to find the extreme ends on how this student can play with an embouchure motion to not just find what seems to be working, but again eliminating other possible ways before settling in. Then repeat for a descending slur. Again, what works to ascend should be the exact opposite to descend.

Recently Rich Hanks posted about this on the Reinhardt Forum at the Trumpet Herald. Again, please remember that he is using Reinhardt’s definition of “pivot,” which is defined as the pushing and pulling of the mouthpiece and lips up and down along the teeth, not horn angle.

In general, there will be a direction where the pitch goes sharp and a direction where the pitch goes flat. Often, you can even get that on one note. While trying to hold a pitch steady for a long tone, for example, you can experiment with moving the horn up/down and left/right. Hopefully, you will notice patterns on that one note. Then see if that works the same over intervals.

By moving the horn angle around while the player is sustaining a single note you might notice certain intonation or timbre changes. For example, if the student’s pitch goes sharp when you move the horn angle towards the right, then this player might want to incorporate this angle change when ascending and move towards the left to descend. With some students I may recommend they not worry about their horn angle for a while, depending on how they already play and what sort of things we decide should be priorities. However, while doing a little of this experimenting I will also sometimes make their embouchure motion for them while they’re trying to sustain a single pitch. If I push a student’s mouthpiece and lips together up towards the nose and the pitch drops, then this helps provide additional support that this student’s general embouchure motion should be down to ascend. Sometimes you can even make a student slur a partial up or down this way. Here’s a video that shows me experimenting with one student this way.

Gradually, through this combination of experimentation, a pattern will hopefully emerge that all points towards a specific embouchure motion that works best for a particular student. Sometimes it takes weeks to work out the kinks, but other times it will be obvious pretty quickly.

Many students will  frequently react to having their horn angle or embouchure motion moved for them by adjusting their head to follow. They are used to playing a certain way and want it to feel that way, whether or not it’s correct. Especially if you’re trying to find the extreme edges where certain things can work it’s hard for the student to fight that urge. This sort of experimentation requires the student be comfortable with things not working, since what you’re experimenting with gives you clues as to how to make it work. I should also mention that it can be very demanding on the chops to do this sort of experimentation, and I find it’s useful to allow for lots of short breaks. These are good times to discuss what you’re looking and listening for and what you notice, or to answer any questions the student might have.

In part 2 (to be posted Monday) I’ll go over some common issues students have with their embouchure motions and some thoughts on how to correct them as efficiently as possible so that more time can be spent on making music over developing chops.

If you’re a teacher who considers the embouchure motion as important to learn about, how do you determine your students’ most efficient ones? If you’re a student who had your embouchure motion typed by a teacher, what sort of things did he or she check for that are different from my thoughts above? Got questions on how to interpret something you notice while experimenting? Leave your comments below.

Music Theory Puzzle – Spot the Parallel Fifths in Bach Chorale

It’s been a while since I put out a music theory puzzle. Here is an excerpt from a chorale by J.S. Bach, “Ach Gott, vom Himmel sieh darein” (“”Oh God, look down from heaven”). This particular chorale contains (*gasp*) parallel fifths. Take a look and see if you can spot them. The answer after the break.

Bach Chorale 3 excerptComposer Russell Steinberg wrote about Bach’s use of unconventional techniques like parallel fifths.

The risky choices require much more imagination. They introduce elements of chaos and instability into the chorale that require other extreme choices to balance the whole. Not surprisingly, Bach does not choose to play it safe. Instead, he careens around the fringes of tonal coherence. His riskier choices require ever more imaginative responses in an intricate balancing act that erupts in surprise and a hypersensitive awareness of connections between the voices. Bach’s chorales expose possibilities within tonality that are not immediately obvious, all by pushing the system to its breaking point. If the conventional voice leading the textbooks advocate produces a dozen solutions, Bach’s unconventional tendencies expose hundreds of new choices. These choices bend the system and astonish the ear, but still work within the tonal framework, and ultimately support and strengthen its foundations. They revitalize the chorales with the excitement of discovering new possibilities and new beauty in tonality.

Did you spot the parallel fifths yet? Continue on to see the answer. Continue reading Music Theory Puzzle – Spot the Parallel Fifths in Bach Chorale

Air Pockets and Guess the Embouchure Type – Frank Rosolino

Recently I came across an idea that trombonist Frank Rosolino played with air pockets under his upper lip. David emailed me to ask about this and mentioned that the guy he heard it from sat in on a gig with Rosolino and noticed it. Then last week while traveling to a gig with trombonist Joey Lee, he mentioned the same thing. Joey told me the fellow he heard it from speculated that the air pockets under Rosolino’s upper lip were responsible for him occasionally “airing out” when going for high notes.

I’m generally skeptical about claims like this unless I read it from a primary source, but it is possible that Rosolino did play with air pockets under his upper lip. I’ve blogged about this technique before, but in the context of trumpeter Tim Morrison. In this particular case there is an interview I found where Morrison discusses how and why he plays this way.

I was curious to compare what Morrison’s upper lip looked like (as someone who is known to play with air pockets under his upper lip) with Rosolino’s while playing, so I went back and watched some video of Morrison playing and then compared it to this video footage of Frank Rosolino. If you skip ahead to 1:53 you can jump right to a pretty good close shot of Rosolino playing for a bit. Then skip ahead to 2:35 and get a look from the front. See if you can tell if there are air pockets there or not. While your at it, see if you can guess his embouchure type. My guess below, followed by more discussion on playing with air pockets.

With his big mustache and shadows created by the studio lighting Continue reading Air Pockets and Guess the Embouchure Type – Frank Rosolino

Find Your Double C

My apologies for the unexpected outage these last few days. Things seem to be back to normal now. To cheer you up, here’s some advice from Jeff Curnow on how to find your double C. “So easy, even a child can do it.”

Online Tuning Fork

Tuning ForkI’ve posted a bit before on practicing with drones. I recently came across this online tuning fork that can be used to set up drones in your practice. There are some features you can customize with it, including changing the tone from a pure sine wave to a sawtooth wave. I’ve found electronically generated tones like those are quite challenging to tune to, which is what I’m looking for when practicing for intonation. Something about the organic sounds of acoustic instruments makes them more forgiving, so I like the added challenge of playing perfectly in tune with the sine wave. Try setting up the root of a scale and playing your scales very slowly over the drone, making sure to lock into each interval as perfectly as possible. It really helps sharpen your ears for intonation.

Online Tuning Fork

Low-Down Sires July 12, 2013 and Asheville Jazz Orchestra July 13, 2013 at White Horse Black Mountain

Low-Down Sires weddingI’ve got not one, but two gigs this weekend at the White Horse Black Mountain, both with fun jazz groups. This Friday, July 12, 2013, I’ll be performing with trad jazz band the Low-Down Sires. I started performing with this group a couple of months ago or so and have been having a ball performing music I hadn’t played much recently. It’s fun stepping out of my usual playing style and makes for an interesting challenge to adapt my style to fit the music (it’s so easy for me to start bopping if I’m not paying attention!).

AJO at Rocket ClubThe next night, Saturday, July 13, 2013 I’ll be back again with the Asheville Jazz Orchestra. As usual, we’ll be performing a mix of big band jazz ranging from your favorites from the Swing Era up through original big band charts of my own. It’s always a fun show to play.

If you’re in the area this weekend (Black Mountain, NC), come on out. Both shows start at 8 PM and go until 10 PM or so.

The Amazing World of Embouchure, Breathsupport, and Singing

If you’re based around Beetsterzwaag, the Netherlands or plan on being in the area around November 2, 2013, you might be interested in a conference going on that sounds very interesting.

We are pleased to attend a unique Educational Project “The Amazing World of Embouchure Breathsupport &Singing (IEPE)”, which will be held on November 2nd, 2013, in Beetsterzwaag, the Netherlands. The goal of IEPE will be to integrate science into singing and brass &woodwind music education. We hope that with the latest scientific information in the field of embouchure, singing and breath support, all amateur and professional musicians/singers can enhance their musical performances. Several of the the best European lectors in this field have been invited to participate for this Educational Project!

Click here to download a PDF brochure if you’d like more information.